When doctors used to ask her how bad she hurt on a scale of one
to 10, Gilroyan Michelle Travlos sometimes answered,
Sickle cell anemia was consuming Travlos’ life, and after a
particularly frightening emergency two years ago, Travlos hit a
When doctors used to ask her how bad she hurt on a scale of one to 10, Gilroyan Michelle Travlos sometimes answered, “11.” Sickle cell anemia was consuming Travlos’ life, and after a particularly frightening emergency two years ago, Travlos hit a breaking point.
As she and her daughter Taylor relaxed on their stately front porch Thursday, it’s hard to imagine the laid-back North Carolina native as anything other than in control.
But at one point, complications from the disease were sending her to the emergency room several times a year. When she was home, she barely had the strength to stand, let alone do the things she loves, such as working on the vegetable garden she planted with 9-year-old Taylor, cooking the famous dishes everyone at her daughter’s school asks after, volunteering or spending time with her 24-year-old son, Kevin.
“I had no energy,” Travlos, 46, said. “I would go home and I could barely walk. I didn’t want to go to rehab because I wanted to be home with my daughter. I couldn’t get out the door she would be holding onto me so tight.”
It was during this low point Travlos turned to the one constant presence throughout her life: her faith. She says it provided a fresh perspective on her disease.
“My focus is not on the things that I can’t do but what I can do in life,” she said. “I know that other people are going through a whole lot of things that are worse than what I go through. I hope that my story will open the doors for other people living with sickle cell.”
Now that Taylor is old enough to know a bit more about her mother’s disease, Travlos is teaching her daughter the importance of serving her community by encouraging her to host a blood drive.
“My mom needs blood to live a normal life,” said the girl.
Sickle cell disease is a group of genetic disorders that causes the body to make abnormal hemoglobin, the protein that gives blood its red color and carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. In patients with sickle cell disease, the hemoglobin clumps together and causes red blood cells to become stiff and shaped like a sickle, or a “C,” instead of the smooth, round shape of normal red blood cells. The rigid cells don’t flow easily, causing various complications such as shortness of breath and intense joint and chest pain.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the disease affects 70,000 to 100,000 people and occurs in about one of every 500 African American births and 1 in 1,000 to 1,400 Hispanic Americans.
Travlos said she doesn’t know where she would be without the blood transfusions that have helped keep the disease under control.
“It’s almost like I’m the Energizer Bunny,” she said. “When I get new blood, it’s like getting new batteries. I feel really good. The transfusions tell my bone marrow to cool down, don’t make any more sickle cells.”
At the drive, Taylor, a student at Pacific West Christian Academy, and her friends will distribute facts about sickle cell disease, along with providing her own homemade lemonade, iced tea and cookies.
Because her mother has the disease, Taylor and her older brother carry the trait and can pass the disease onto their own children if they have a family with a partner who also carries the trait.
Since the time Taylor was old enough to hold a fork, she and her mother have been whipping up culinary creations in the kitchen. Earlier that afternoon, the two stood side by side at the kitchen counter, marinating steaks and chopping freshly picked vegetables for dinner. Two years ago, just before she started receiving transfusions, Travlos ended up in the hospital and didn’t see her daughter for a few weeks. It broke her heart, she said.
Even after she started getting blood transfusions, Travlos knew it would take about a year to feel back to normal. Her struggle to find doctors who would treat her didn’t help.
“When they look at my labs, it’s almost like I’m an alien to them,” she said. “A lot of doctors aren’t educated when it comes to sickle cell disease.”
Usually a woman of unwavering faith, Travlos felt her trust in the Lord slipping.
After one of many long trips to Children’s Hospital in Oakland, Travlos returned home and quietly opened her Bible.
“I just started talking to God,” she said. “I realized that every day, I was fearful that something was going to happen, that I was going to die.
“I felt like I just had it out. And then I just got quiet,” she said, a sob breaking her voice. “I heard the Holy Spirit say, ‘I had you the whole time. I had you when you went down that hill. I had you when you closed your eyes and I had you when you woke up. And I still have you. You don’t have to be fearful.’ “
That conversation restored her faith.
Now that she’s secured some of the best doctors she could find, Travlos – making a point to thank doctors Robert Hager, Eugene McMillan, Ronald Yanagihara and Cheung Leung – said she’s focussing on reaching out to others with the disease and encouraging communities to donate blood.
“This is why people need to donate,” Travlos said, giving her daughter a squeeze. “I want to be able to do the things I love doing every day. I love volunteering. And I love serving the Lord. I love being a mom.”
Watching his mother cope with her condition has only reinforced what her son, Kevin Barnett, said he already knew.
“The thing about my mom is that she’s probably the strongest person I’ve known in my entire life,” he said. “She’s fought for every single thing she’s gotten. But you would really never know. The last thing she wants is for people to feel bad for her.”
Barnett was two when his mother packed him and herself up and moved from North Carolina to California. As the man of the house until his mother remarried about 12 years ago, Barnett saw firsthand the ups and downs of his mother’s disease, and was forced to “man up” and care for her on more than one occasion. Over the years, the two came to an understanding: If she needs something, she speaks up. And if she doesn’t, everything’s fine, he said.
“I’d go out of my way to do anything for my mom,” he said. “You only get one mom so don’t mess it up.”
– 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
– Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7999 Miller Avenue
– To schedule your appointment, visit www.redcrossblood.org. You may also call 1-800-RED CROSS.